The Plastic Imagination


By "plastic imagination" I understand that which has for its special

characters clearness and precision of form; more explicitly those forms

whose materials are clear images (whatever be their nature), approaching

perception, giving the impression of reality; in which, too, there

predominate associations with objective relations, determinable with

precision. The plastic mark, therefore, is
in the images, and in the

modes of association of images. In somewhat rough terms, requiring

modifications which the reader himself can make, it is the imagination

that materializes.

Between perception--a very complex synthesis of qualities, attributes

and relations--and conception--which is only the consciousness of a

quality, quantity, or relation, often of only a single word accompanied

by vague outlines and a latent, potential knowledge; between concrete

and abstract, the image occupies an intermediate position and can run

from one pole to another, now full of reality, now almost as poor and

pale as a concept. The representation here styled plastic descends

towards its point of origin; it is an external imagination, arising from

sensation rather than from feeling and needing to become objective.

Thus its general characters are easy of determination. First and

foremost, it makes use of visual images; then of motor images; lastly,

in practical invention, of tactile images. In a word, the three groups

of images present to a great extent the character of externality and

objectivity. The clearness of form of these three groups proceeds from

their origin, because they arise from sensation well determined in

space--sight, movement, touch. Plastic imagination depends most on

spatial conditions. We shall see that its opposite, diffluent

imagination, is that which depends least upon that factor, or is most

free from it. Among these naturally objective elements the plastic

imagination chooses the most objective, which fact gives its creations

an air of reality and life.

The second characteristic is inferiority of the affective element; it

appears only intermittently and is entirely blotted out before sensory

impression. This form of the creative imagination, coming especially

from sensation, aims especially at sensation. Thus it is rather

superficial, greatly devoid of that internal mark that comes from


But if it chance that both sensory and affective elements are equal in

power; if there is at the same time intense vision adequate to reality,

and profound emotion, violent shock, then there arise extraordinary

imaginative personages, like Shakespeare, Carlyle, Michelet. It is

needless to describe this form of imagination, excellent pen-pictures of

which have been given by the critics; let us merely note that its

psychology reduces itself to an alternately ascending and descending

movement between the two limiting points of perception and idea. The

ascending process assigns to inanimate objects life, desires and

feelings. Thus Michelet: "The great streams of the Netherlands, tired

with their very long course, perish as though from weariness in the

unfeeling ocean." Elsewhere, the great folio begets the octavo,

"which becomes the parent of the small volume, of booklets, of ephemeral

pamphlets, invisible spirits flying in the night, creating under the

very eyes of tyrants the circulation of liberty." The descending process

materializes abstractions, gives them body, makes them flesh and bone;

the Middle Ages become "a poor child, torn from the bowels of

Christianity, born amidst tears, grown up in prayer and revery, in

anguish of heart, dying without achieving anything." In this dazzle of

images there is a momentary return to primitive animism.


In order to more fully understand the plastic imagination, let us take

up its principal manifestations.

1. First, the arts dealing with form, where its necessity is evident.

The sculptor, painter, architect, must have visual and tactile-motor

images; it is the material in which their creations are wrapped up. Even

leaving out the striking acts requiring such a sure and tenacious

external vision (portraits executed from memory, exact remembrance of

faces at the end of twenty years, as in the case of Gavarni, etc.),

and limiting ourselves merely to the usual, the plastic arts demand an

observant imagination. For the majority of men the concrete image of a

face, a form, a color, usually remains vague and fleeting; "red, blue,

black, white, tree, animal, head, mouth, arm, etc., are scarcely more

than words, symbols expressing a rough synthesis. For the painter, on

the other hand, images have a very high precision of details, and what

he sees beneath the words or in real objects are analyzed facts,

positive elements of perception and movement."

The role of tactile-motor images is not insignificant. There has often

been cited the instance of sculptors who, becoming blind, have

nevertheless been able to fashion busts of close resemblance to the

original. This is memory of touch and of the muscular sense, entirely

equivalent to the visual memory of the portrait painters mentioned

above. Practical knowledge of design and modeling--i.e., of contour and

relief--though resulting from natural or acquired disposition, depends

on cerebral conditions, the development of definite sensory-motor

regions and their connections; and on psychological conditions--the

acquisition and organization of appropriate images. "We learn to paint

and carve," wrote a contemporary painter, "as we do sewing, embroidery,

sawing, filing and turning." In short, like all manual labor requiring

associated and combined acts.

2. Another form of plastic imagination uses words as means for evoking

vivid and clear impressions of sight, touch, movement; it is the poetic

or literary form. Of it we find in Victor Hugo a finished type. As all

know, we need only open his works at hazard to find a stream of

glittering images. But what is their nature? His recent biographers,

guided by contemporary psychology, have well shown that they always

paint scenes or movements. It is unnecessary to give proofs. Some facts

have a broader range and throw light upon his psychology. Thus we are

told that "he never dictates or rhymes from memory and composes only in

writing, for he believes that writing has its own features, and he

wants to see the words. Theophile Gautier, who knows and understands

him so well, says: 'I also believe that in the sentence we need most of

all an ocular rhythm. A book is made to be read, not to be spoken

aloud.'" It is added that "Victor Hugo never spoke his verses but wrote

them out and would often illustrate them on the margin, as if he needed

to fixate the image in order to find the appropriate word."

After visual representations come those of movement: the steeple

pierces the horizon, the mountain rends the cloud, the mountain

raises himself and looks about, "the cold caverns open their mouths

drowsily," the wind lashes the rock into tears with the waterfall, the

thorn is an enraged plant, and so on indefinitely.

A more curious fact is the transposition of sonorous sensations or

images of sound, and like them without form or figure, into visual and

motor images: "The ruffles of sound that the fifer cuts out; the flute

goes up to alto like a frail capital on a column." This thoroughly

plastic imagination remains identical with itself while reducing

everything spontaneously, unconsciously, to spatial terms.

In literature this altogether foreign mode of creative activity has

found its most complete expression among the Parnassiens and their

congeners, whose creed is summed up in the formula, faultless form and

impassiveness. Theophile Gautier claims that "a poet, no matter what may

be said of him, is a workman; it is not necessary that he have more

intelligence than a laborer and have knowledge of a state other than his

own, without which he does badly. I regard as perfectly absurd the mania

that people have of hoisting them (the poets) up onto an ideal pedestal;

nothing is less ideal than a poet. For him words have in themselves

and outside the meaning they express, their own beauty and value, just

like precious stones not yet cut and mounted in bracelets, necklaces and

rings; they charm the understanding that looks at them and takes them

from the finger to the little pile where they are put aside for future

use." If this statement, whether sincere or not, is taken literally, I

see no longer any difference, save as regards the materials employed,

between the imagination of poets and the imagination active in the

mechanical arts. For the usefulness of the one and the "uselessness" of

the other is a characteristic foreign to invention itself.

3. In the teeming mass of myths and religious conceptions that the

nineteenth century has gathered with so much care we could establish

various classifications--according to race, content, intellectual level;

and, in a more artificial manner but one suitable for our subject,

according to the degree of precision or fluidity.

Neglecting intermediate forms, we may, indeed, divide them into two

groups; some are clear in outline, are consistent, relatively logical,

resembling a definite historical relation; others are vague, multiform,

incoherent, contradictory; their characters change into one another, the

tales are mixed and are imperceptible in the whole.

The former types are the work of the plastic imagination. Such are, if

we eliminate oriental influences, most of the myths belonging to Greece

when, on emerging from the earliest period, they attained their definite

constitution. It has been held that the plastic character of these

religious conceptions is an effect of esthetic development: statues,

bas-reliefs, poetry, and even painting, have made definite the

attributes of the gods and their history. Without denying this influence

we must nevertheless understand that it is only auxiliary. To those who

would challenge this opinion let us recall that the Hindoos have had

gigantic poems, have covered their temples with numberless sculptures,

and yet their fluid mythology is the opposite of the Greek. Among the

peoples who have incarnated their divinities in no statue, in no human

or animal form, we find the Germans and the Celts. But the mythology of

the former is clear, well kept within large lines; that of the latter is

fleeting and inconsistent--the despair of scholars.

It is, then, certain that myths of the plastic kind are the fruits of an

innate quality of mind, of a mode of feeling and of translating, at a

given moment in its history, the preponderating characters of a race; in

short, of a form of imagination and ultimately of a special cerebral


4. The most complete manifestation of the plastic imagination is met

with in mechanical invention and what is allied thereto, in consequence

of the need of very exact representations of qualities and relations.

But this is a specialized form, and, as its importance has been too

often misunderstood, it deserves a separate study. (See Chapter V,



Such are the principal traits of this type of imagination: clearness of

outline, both of the whole and of the details. It is not identical with

the form called realistic--it is more comprehensive; it is a genus of

which "realism" is a species. Moreover, the latter expression being

reserved by custom for esthetic creation, I purposely digress in order

to dwell on this point: that the esthetic imagination has no essential

character belonging exclusively to it, and that it differs from other

forms (scientific, mechanical, etc.) only in its materials and in its

end, not in its primary nature.

On the whole, the plastic imagination could be summed up in the

expression, clearness in complexity. It always preserves the mark of

its original source--i.e., in the creator and those disposed to enjoy

and understand him it tends to approach the clearness of perception.

Would it be improper to consider as a variety of the genus a mode of

representation that could be expressed as clearness in simplicity? It

is the dry and rational imagination. Without depreciating it we may say

that it is rather a condition of imaginative poverty. We hold with

Fouillee that the average Frenchman furnishes a good example of it. "The

Frenchman," says he, "does not usually have a very strong imagination.

His internal vision has neither the hallucinative intensity nor the

exuberant fancy of the German and Anglo-Saxon mind; it is an

intellectual and distant view rather than a sensitive resurrection or an

immediate contact with, and possession of, the things themselves.

Inclined to deduce and construct, our intellect excels less in

representing to itself real things than in discovering relations between

possible or necessary things. In other words, it is a logical and

combining imagination that takes pleasure in what has been termed the

abstract view of life. The Chateaubriands, Hugos, Flauberts, Zolas, are

exceptional with us. We reason more than we imagine."

Its psychological constitution is reducible to two elements: slightly

concrete images, schemas approaching general ideas; for their

association, relations predominantly rational, more the products of the

logic of the intellect than of the logic of the feelings. It lacks the

sudden, violent shock of emotion that gives brilliancy to images, making

them arise and grouping them in unforeseen combinations. It is a form of

invention and construction that is more the work of reason than of

imagination proper.

Consequently, is it not paradoxical to relate it to plastic imagination,

as species to genus? It would be idle to enter upon a discussion of the

subject here without attempting a classification; let us merely note the

likenesses and differences. Both are above all objective--the first,

because it is sensory; the other, because it is rational. Both make use

of analogous modes of association, dependent more on the nature of

things than on the personal impression of the subject. Opposition exists

only on one point: the former is made up of vivid images that approach

perception; the latter is made up of internal images bordering upon

concepts. Rational imagination is plastic imagination desiccated and